When someone mentions partnership we often think of a dog and owner walking confidently down the street, but this story shows how deep partnership and collaboration goes at Guide Dogs, and the results it can produce.
Huxley is a two-year-old black Labrador who came into training under the care of Hannah Webb-Martin. Hannah is one of our Academy learners and remembers ‘Huxley was part of my second round of dogs, and from the start he was enthusiastic about his learning. He made great progress in training and seemed to enjoy coming into the centre in the morning to start his school day.’ However, with Huxley’s guiding skills going well, there was a growing issue causing Hannah, the dog care team and the Training & Behaviour Advisors (TBAs) concern – during routine vet exams Huxley objected strongly if anyone tried to look at his eyes.
Claire Lee, TBA at Bristol explains ‘When I first saw Huxley in a veterinary setting he was using energetic play behaviours to avoid the vet examining him, particularly around his head or eyes. He was clearly uncomfortable and was showing his emotions and feelings to us through jumping around and mouthing. He was trying to distract us and avoid the examination situation.’
Despite Huxley’s big steps towards becoming a guide dog, this problem threatened to derail his whole career. Guide dogs must be able to be checked daily by their owner, and regularly by a vet to ensure they’re healthy – and of course, our dogs’ eyesight is crucial.
With four failed veterinary attempts to do an ophthalmic examination, and withdrawal looking increasingly likely, the team sat down to work out a plan. This involved Hannah and her Academy colleague Roberto, Claire as the behavioural expert, local team manager Evita, and the dog care and welfare team, but also the volunteers and external partners involved in Huxley’s care – his fosterers, and the brilliant local vets who worked with us to give Huxley the time and experience he needed.
The team suspected that a bout of conjunctivitis when he was a pup had left Huxley with a sensitivity – although he’d seemed fine with having eye drops in at the time, he now wasn’t keen to have anyone around his eyes. The team knew that if they could pair the eye exam with a positive experience, there was a chance Huxley could go on to be a successful guide dog. With his fosterer agreeing to keep him with them for additional time, the local team working with him on a daily basis, and the local vets giving him access to their care and facilities, the project began.
Hannah recalls ‘The teamwork was pretty impressive - we worked with staff here in Bristol and took advice and support from colleagues in other regions; all the volunteers around Huxley were key to helping us work through his issues, the tech and dog care teams were invaluable, three local vet teams allowed us to visit and do pretend examinations at their facilities – they even gave us some old ophthalmic equipment so that we could get Huxley used to the experience while he was at the centre. Everyone was committed to helping this dog.’
Evita recalls ‘I’d seen Hannah working Huxley around the site and remember thinking what a great guide dog he’d be for someone – but this really was make or break for him. Without reliable behaviour at the vets and around being examined, he could never have been matched in a partnership. So, it was absolutely worth putting this development plan in place to see if we could make it work.’
Claire explains ‘We needed Huxley to co-operate in his own care and teach him that he could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a procedure at any stage of that experience. By building his trust that he would be listened to, and that we’d stop if he needed us to, he could be more in control of what was happening. The exam happened with him rather than to him.’
‘We started by having him relax in a ‘vet room’ we’d created at the centre, and taught him our chin rest behaviour – he was rewarded for putting his chin on a flat surface and we built up the length of time he maintained that position, rewarding with food and praise. Once he was comfortable with that we started adding in very gentle contact, stopping when he lifted his head so he could set the pace.’
With Huxley’s confidence growing, the team started introducing medical-style equipment – initially with a children’s toy, then with a real opthalmic device, moving slowly towards real exam conditions, and always with Huxley’s positive cooperation. Then they started generalising the behaviour – moving to different environments and involving different people so that Huxley understood that it was the behaviour which mattered, rather than the setting. We even had staff members wearing scrubs to replicate being at the vets!
Claire recalls ‘During an ophthalmic exam the vet has to get quite close to the dog – and take their time checking everything. For a while it seems like nothing happens, and I realised that Huxley was uneasy with that. He wasn’t sure that to do – it’s a bit like being on the phone and someone puts you on hold without any music! I found that if I counted down out loud during the close exam, Huxley would focus on my voice and be reassured that something was still happening, and that he was doing the right thing by holding still. When I got to ‘one’ that was his marker word, and he knew that I would reward him for his brilliant behaviour. Once he associated the vet experience with positivity, praise and reward, and he understood that we were working in partnership with him, he was fine.’
The ending of Huxley’s story is actually a new beginning – with his behavioural issue resolved he has been matched and is now part of a really successful partnership. His new owner, Jason, continues to support the plan by taking Huxley into his local vets regularly, to cement that positive association – and the vets know Huxley and continue to support him. Jason says ‘From the moment I met Huxley we just clicked. He’s so keen to go out and work, he’s always interested in what’s going on – he’s a natural.’
Claire comments ‘Every guide dog partnership is the result of a huge team of people working together – it always takes the Guide Dogs family, but with Huxley it really did take a village. Huxley is now relaxed and confident at the vets, looks forward to the praise at the end of the process, and is doing what he was born to do.’